Two male scientists with brown hair, and two female scientists, one wearing a hijab, and the other with blonde hair watch a solution being distributed amongst test tubes

How to Lead a Research Team in 4 Steps

Despite talent management in research being the greatest driver of research success, researchers are seldom taught how to lead a research team well.

In fact, research from the Wellcome Trust where over 4,000 scientists were surveyed, reveals that while 80% of lead researchers say they have the skills to manage a diverse team, less than half of research leaders have had any management training.

Successfully implementing talent management practices in a time-sensitive laboratory environment can be complex and remains a key area in need of improvement even for industry leaders in the scientific field.

However, when leaders do rise to the challenge, they can generate an environment of continual improvement, increased efficiency and greater satisfaction. 
In this article, I’ll outline 4 key steps, inspired by Psychologist Bruce Tuckman’s notorious theory of group development

Expect to find: 

  • 4 steps to successful leadership
  • Research and insights on laboratory leadership
  • Key skills information for research leaders

Four key steps to leadership success

Step 1 – Form a vision and set your strategy

While mission statements involve describing the purpose of your research itself, a vision statement should outline the project’s full trajectory while staying connected to the mission. 

Your wider strategy and vision statement should include details around:

  • Staff career plans – understanding your team’s ideal career trajectory will enable you to better share opportunities and responsibilities.
  • Timelines for the project – clarifying clear timelines from the start can improve your chances of gaining additional funding.
  • Communication channels – find reliable ways to maintain communication, ideally through weekly updates.
  • Financial goals – aim for any additional funding opportunities from the project’s outset.
  • Approach to work-life balance – understanding your team’s need for a work-life balance will help shape the trajectory of the project, and timelines, by setting realistic goals
  • Development opportunities – describe any additional training and development opportunities that are available over the course of the project
  • Enabling innovation – foster a creative environment from the outset, creating a psychologically safe environment where people can suggest new ideas.
  • Building connections – collaboration can open up a wealth of opportunity and resource.

Vision statements should be a collaborative affair, where your team contribute their perspectives to shape a realistic and meaningful vision for the project. 

A strong research vision describes the unique way a challenge will be addressed in context of its wider societal, environmental or even industrial impact.

Syngenta accomplish this with the vision statement below:

“Our vision is a bright future for smallholder farming. To strengthen smallholder farming and food systems, we catalyze market development and delivery of innovations, while building capacity across the public and private sectors”

Leadership tip: While creativity is often regarded as key to research culture, 75% of researchers believe it’s being stalled. Overcoming this takes conscious action, and psychological safety. Google’s research shows that psychological safety is one of the greatest drivers for successful teamwork. Leaders can achieve a more innovative, and successful team culture by showing concern for wellbeing alongside success. 

Step 2 – Bridge communication gaps and work through the challenges

Once you’ve successfully set up the vision and strategy behind your project, your attention can shift onto working through the challenges that arise and bridging any communication gaps that emerge.
Your focus as a leader should be on promoting learning and providing the constructive feedback needed to help your team turn mistakes into lessons learned. 

When faced with a hurdle, consider additional training where skills are insufficient, and stay committed even if the project isn’t going at the pace you expected.

Leadership tip: It’s also important to practice self-awareness and identify whether any research challenges could be down to your leadership style. If you don’t find your leadership style to be driving your team’s motivation, be prepared to change up your approach. Research shows you can do this by asking ‘what’ you can do to change, rather than focusing too much on ‘why’ your approach wasn’t successful. 

Step 3 – Sustain performance

Now your project has overcome its growing pains, it’s likely that productivity has increased and that you’re looking for ways to keep that momentum going. 

Emphasising project ownership and accountability is integral at this stage and can help sustain motivation and commitment to the research. As the research continues, it’s important to leverage communication channels, and keep conversations and ideas flowing – doing so, will better enable problem solving if further issues do arise. 

Your responsibilities will largely shift at this point to monitoring:

  • Time – the time it takes to complete projects, as well as the time the team are spending in the lab.
  • Money – how finances are progressing, and whether further resourcing may be required.
  • Quality of work – the quality of work should take a greater focus over the quantity of work, although both are important.
  • Work-life balance – refer back to the vision for the project; is the same work-life balance being maintained?
  • Burnout – monitor employee wellbeing and try to identify signs of employee burnout early.

Leadership tip: To maintain productivity, it’s important to move away from a competitive culture. 78% of researchers think that high levels of competition in the laboratory have created unkind, and aggressive conditions. Celebrate achievements and consider how you can help encourage team growth and development rather than focusing on a competitive environment.

Step 4 - Prepare for wrap-up

As the project draws to a close, your role as a leader should shift on to developing your team member’s career beyond the project.
You can refer back to your project vision, as well as actively communicate with your wider team to ensure that every member is accessing the opportunities that they need to transition to their next research project and role.

You could organise a final event for the team to celebrate personal achievements alongside overall team achievements to close the project in a positive way.

Leadership tip: Establishing a successful offboarding process as a leader is crucial to maintaining a strong network with wider research teams, even after project completion. 

Skills breakdown:

Key skills Research Managers require to achieve laboratory success are:

  1. Agility
  2. Self-awareness
  3. Empathy
  4. Time management
  5. Honesty
  6. Accountability

Looking for resource support?

At Synergy, we provide specialist teams that boost laboratory capability, potential and efficiency from within. (www.srgtalent.com/clients/our-services/synergy-scientific-solutions) 

Our links with SRG’s expansive talent networks mean we can source, manage and develop teams on behalf of our clients across the clinical and biotech industries.

Want to learn more? Get in touch with our team at: synergyqueries@srgtalent.com 

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